Last updated Jun 2020
The guide to mastering online brainstorming
Iris Latour,
Customer Insights Manager at Miro
Hailing from the design world, Iris has written articles and facilitated workshops at conferences on design thinking, business design, culture design, and the creative ideation process.

How to Brainstorm Online: The Starter Kit

Organizing a brainstorming session doesn’t have to be daunting. With the right preparation, it can be extremely rewarding – and, believe it or not, pretty fun. But what do you do when it’s your turn to lead the meeting? With so many brainstorming techniques to choose from – and so many personalities and goals colliding in each brainstorm – it can be difficult to figure out where to start. So, start here!

What is online brainstorming?

Online brainstorming is the process of conducting a brainstorming session online, typically using technologies like an online whiteboard, video conferencing, and file sharing apps. Any time you want to generate ideas as a remote team, online brainstorming is one of the best ways to do it.

8 steps to prepare for your online brainstorm session

Every good brainstorm starts before the actual session. A few days before you plan to meet, block off your calendar to do some thinking and prep. You're going to need online tools to facilitate your brainstorm if you're working with a distributed team.

1. Name the problem

First, define the problem or question that the brainstorming session will aim to address. The question should be clear and concise. For example, instead of “How can we improve our website?” try something like “What first step can we take toward selecting a vendor who can help level up our web design?”

2. Write down who needs to participate

Participants should have a stake in the problem or question. Include a mixture of experts and non experts. Experts can provide pointers or tips on the topic, but they tend to be limited by what they know. Non-experts don’t know as much, of course, but that means they have a more limited concept of what they can’t do – meaning a wider range of motion when they’re articulating their ideas.

Importantly, don’t invite too many people. Three to seven is ideal. By inviting fewer than three, you make it difficult to establish a free flow of brainstorm ideas. By inviting more than seven, you end up with the opposite problem: people butting heads as they each vie to speak their mind.

3. Decide how you’ll go from ideation to idea selection

To increase efficiency and avoid roadblocks, you’ll want to establish a process for going from idea generation to selection on the outset. A popular method is to ask participants to vote on three to five of their favorite ideas. You can then take these ideas to a strategy session so that a smaller group can evaluate them for selection.

A group voting on their favorite ideas in an online brainstorm in Miro

4. Choose a brainstorming technique

Figure out the techniques you’ll use to facilitate conversation during the brainstorm. Your selection might change depending on the number of people invited to the meeting, the personalities involved, what you hope to accomplish, and whether people are all participating remotely or whether some are in the office. Get the participants’ buy-in prior to the meeting, so everyone comes to the brainstorm prepared to participate. Send them an email beforehand describing the technique you plan to use, and invite them to ask clarification questions.

Not sure which method to choose? Read: 20 brainstorming techniques to try remotely

5. Decide on tools

If you’re brainstorming in the office, you can’t go wrong with sticky notes and Sharpies. However, use collaboration tools like an online whiteboard to brainstorm online. It's the perfect digital space to ideate in real-time, take notes, add post-it-notes, vote on ideas, and follow up after your brainstorm.

In addition, you may need tools to share specific files with the group like Google Docs, Google Drive, or DropBox. It can also be useful to keep communication avenues like Slack open during your brainstorm if you want to share links.

6. Customize a virtual space to host your brainstorm

Start by using a template to create a visual space for brainstorming on your online whiteboard. Write the instructions for the technique you're using, and practice features that may be new to you (like using the Timer and setting up participant voting). The idea is to make it easy for your group to get started.

Try this online brainstorming starter kit Here's an easy-to-use template by UX Designer Jen Goertzen. It will help you get set up in seconds so the prep work doesn't take too much time.

7. Send out a meeting invite with an agenda

We’ve all been invited to a meeting without knowing what it was for. Even if everyone has the best of intentions, it can make you feel confused, unwelcome, and like you’re wasting your time. By contrast, including an agenda in your meeting invite will give your participants the opportunity to prepare, make them feel energized, and increase their chances to engage with discussion topics.

While agendas vary, here’s a rough outline of what a productive brainstorm might look like:

8. Share any contextual knowledge ahead of time

It can be helpful to share knowledge about the project itself or the brainstorming technique that you plan to use. For the project, let everyone know what your objectives are, what challenges the team is facing, any relevant history, and how the project fits into your team’s overall goals. For the brainstorming session itself, tell everyone why you selected that particular technique and what you hope to accomplish during the meeting.

How to guide the brainstorm session productively

On the day of the brainstorm, your colleagues will look to you to provide direction. Here’s how you can strike a balance between guiding your team members and giving them space to create.

1. Focus on quantity

Remember, a brainstorm isn’t about generating the best (or most actionable) ideas. Rather, it’s about coming up with as many ideas as possible. If participants’ creativity starts to flag, or if they get wrapped up in their heads about the quality of their ideas, gently remind your teammates that this is their time to think big. If you can sense that their stamina is waning thin, try telling them to come up with as many ideas as they can in the next two minutes, or push them to come up with 5 or 10 more ideas.

2. Withhold criticism

Since you're prioritizing quantity, not all the ideas generated during a brainstorm will be realistic ones, or even good ones. That’s okay! In fact, it’s better than okay: it’s precisely why brainstorming sessions are so effective. The second you start evaluating people’s ideas, participants start focusing on judgement rather than innovation.

As the facilitator, be prepared to redirect the conversation if someone interrupts the dialogue to attack another participant’s idea. Encourage everyone to build on each other’s ideas rather than tearing them down. It rarely happens, but if you do find that a participant keeps disrupting the conversation, give them a task to redirect their attention, like asking them to take notes or draw sketches.

3. Welcome unusual ideas

You’re going to get some pretty strange ideas during a brainstorm. Again, that’s not a bad thing. Alex Osborn, who first came up with brainstorming as a method for inspiring conversations, once quipped, “It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one.” An idea that comes out of left field might steer the conversation toward options you’ve never tried before.

Remember, a brainstorm is not the time to drill down on a specific, actionable solution. By trying to drill down too soon, you risk turning a freewheeling brainstorm into a meeting that’s focused on a single idea. Instead, encourage everyone to keep throwing their strange and creative ideas out there, and go with the flow.

“It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one.” – Alex Osborn

4. Combine and improve ideas

Toward the end of the brainstorm, start to evaluate your ideas to decide which are the most innovative or feasible. You can ask participants to vote on their favorites, or make an affinity diagram to sort ideas into groups based on their relationships to then be reviewed and analyzed. You can even then use that evaluation as a foundation for a second brainstorm: one in which you suggest improvements or alternatives.

4 common mistakes to avoid when brainstorming online

If you're a brainstorming rookie, read these common errors most newbies make so you can be sure to avoid them in your session.

1. Not giving out pre-work

Some facilitators balk at the idea of pre-work. They think it’s too much of a hassle for participants. But even a little pre-work will save you so much time in the future and lead to a better, more efficient brainstorm. When you send out the agenda, ask participants to block off some time to think about the problem you wish to solve, come up with a few preliminary talking points, and come prepared to ideate.

2. Failing to set the stage

Participants will be eager to dive right into a session. But take a moment to set ground rules. Explain the brainstorming technique that you’ll use during the session. Give everyone a few minutes to “brain dump,” a 10-minute exercise that involves writing down ideas in silence. That way, even participants who don’t always love speaking up, or who find it difficult to concentrate when everyone is speaking, will get a chance to come up with some thoughts.

3. Encouraging participants to look for approval

At some point during the brainstorm, participants will look to each other for approval. It’s only natural. It’s vital, however, that you shut it down as quickly as you can. If the brainstorm becomes a minefield of judgment, people will stop sharing their best, most unusual ideas.

4. Allowing someone to dominate the conversation

Sometimes, you might encounter a participant who is eager to have the first and last word. Allowing someone to dominate the conversation makes the other participants feel like they can’t share freely. Try giving this person a task like taking notes to redirect their attention.

FAQs about online brainstorming

What is online brainstorming?

Online brainstorming is the process of brainstorming with individuals in different locations using technology like video conferencing and online whiteboards. 

How do you brainstorm online?

The most important ingredient of a successful online brainstorm is having the right tools: online whiteboard tools that allow everyone to collaborate in real-time, file sharing tools to give everyone on the team access, and communication tools to easily share links and details. 

What are brainstorming techniques?

Popular brainstorming techniques include mind mapping, which involves drawing a diagram tracing connections between disparate thoughts, and brain writing, which allows people to brainstorm individually and then share with the group. 

Put what you've learned into practice. Try leading your own brainstorm session using Miro’s free online brainstorming tool.

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